Monday, March 30, 2009

Arab League Summit in Doha


Today marks the first day of the Leaders of Arab League meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha for the first Arab summit to be held since Israel's operation in Gaza. Of immediate interest is Qatar's leader embracing Sudan's president, Omar Al-Bashir, in his most brazen act of defiance against an international arrest warrant on charges of war crimes in Darfur. Al-Bashir is currently subject to an international arrest warrant, because of his government's actions in the Darfur province of western Sudan, and his attendance has angered international human rights organisations. Around 300,000 people have died and 2.5 million lost their homes in Darfur in the last years, as a result of a campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass slaughter conducted by the Sudanese regime against the non-Arab population of that area. Al-Bashir's trip to Doha represents a clear challenge to the International Criminal Court. The Arab League has declared its opposition to the arrest warrant against Bashir, and the summit is preparing a statement calling for the warrant to be dropped

The Doha gathering is another chance for Qatar to enhance its role as a regional broker - with the growing confidence to occasionally break ranks with traditional regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia and their Western allies. In January, Qatar hosted a Gaza crisis conference that included two leaders sharply at odds with Washington: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. The following month, Qatar mediated preliminary talks between Sudan's government and the most powerful Darfur rebel group. But, as a key US ally that hosts 5000 American troops and warplanes, Qatar's rulers will be careful not to step too far from the Western-leaning fold.

High on the agenda for discussion will be concerns at growing Iranian influence in the region, efforts to bring about a renewed Palestinian unity government, and developing a response to the new Netanyahu government in Israel. Few observers predict major achievements for the summit, which reflects the divided nature of the Arab world - riven by a division between pro-western states and states aligning themselves with Iran. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has declined to attend the summit, and instead has sent his minister of legal affairs, Mufid Shehab. The Egyptian decision is being seen as a calculated snub to Qatar, which is increasingly aligning itself with the pro-Iranian bloc. The Egyptians are furious because of Qatari support for Hamas in Gaza, and the hosting by Qatar of a meeting in Doha during the Gaza operation attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Cairo regards such Qatari actions as both counter-productive and hypocritical, given Qatar's close relations with the US.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gilad Shalit Release Talks Fail

And so it seems the campaign to release Gilad Shalit has come to the end of its current phase. With final push talks from the government of Ehud Olmert over with no successful result, the campaign nevertheless continues. Noam Shalit, Gilad's father is far from giving up hope and has set up camp outside the PM's office in Jerusalem until the end of the PM's term. The breakdown in the talks came as Israeli negotiators, Diskin and Dekel, reported that over the past few days Hamas had toughened its stance in talks over a possible prisoner swap, raising its demands and backtracking on previous understandings.

Israel and Hamas were apparently coming close to an agreement on the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for Shalit. According to the sources, the remaining brunt of contention was which of these prisoners would be freed to the West Bank.

During a special cabinet meeting called to discuss the status of negotiations for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, ministers were presented with a list of ten high-profile Palestinian prisoners which Israel was willing to release so long as they were not allowed to return to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The ministers were also read a list of prisoners which Hamas has demanded be included in the deal, but which Israel adamantly refuses to free. In an unprecedented move, the cabinet voted to publish the names of the latter ten prisoners. Below are the names of these 10 prisoners and the crimes for which they were imprisoned:


  • Hassan Salama - Given 38 life sentences in prison in 1998 for murdering dozens of Israelis in bomb attacks. Among other terror attacks, he planned an Ashkelon suicide bombing which killed a soldier, and two bus bombing attacks in Jerusalem in 1996 which killed 44 people.
  • Bahij Badar - Arrested in 2004 and given 18 life sentences for planning attacks which killed 18 Israelis. He is considered a major figure in the Hamas movement.
  • Abdallah Barghouti - Given 67 life sentences for his role in a string of terror attacks which killed 66 Israelis, and wounded 500 others. Among the attacks which he planned were the 'Sbarro' and Moment Cafe bombings in Jerusalem.
  • Mahmoud Hassan Ahmoud Arman - Convicted in 2002 for his direct role in a series of attacks which claimed 34 Israeli lives. Along with being involved in planning the Moment Cafe bombing, he was the architect of the bombings at a cafeteria in Hebrew University and a night club in Rishon Letzion.
  • Ibrahim Hamed - Convicted for his role in a string of attacks which murdered 82 Israelis and wounded hundreds more, including a 2001 double suicide attack in Jerusalem's Zion Square which killed 11 people.
  • Abbas A-Sayid - Until his imprisonment he served as the head of the Hamas movement in Tulkarem. He was convicted for a number of deadly attacks against Israel, including a suicide bombing in the Hasharon Mall in Netanya which killed 5 Israelis.

  • Mohand Sarim - One of the planners of the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya, which killed 29 Israelis and wounded 64 others in Passover 2002.

  • Ra'ad Hutari - Caught in 2003 and convicted for recruiting a number of suicide bombers, included the one who perpetrated the 2001 attack at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv, which killed 22 people and wounded 83 others.

  • Jamal Abu Al-Hija - Formerly the head of Hamas's military wing in Jenin. He was sentenced to 9 life terms in prison for his role in a number of terror attacks, including a car bombing near a Hadera mall which killed 2 people and wounded 64 others.
  • Mua'at Balal - Given 26 life terms for his role in a string of attacks in Israel, including a 1997 suicide bombing in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, which killed 18 Israelis. He was also directly involved in the 1997 suicide attack on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem, which killed 8 people and wounded 200 others.
  • Reports on the Arab side of the presence in Cairo of the head of Hamas' military wing, Ahmed Jabari, might reveal the seriousness with which the organization is taking the present round of talks. But even in Hamas there are apparently opposing interests. For Jabari it is important to release as many senior prisoners as possible, The political leadership in Gaza wants the siege on the Strip lifted. Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, might be more interested in the release of prisoners from the West Bank, so as to challenge the rule of the Palestinian Authority there. Hamas' leaders understand well the implications of the rise of a narrow right-wing government in Israel. They say they do not fear Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is clear to them that he will have difficulty presenting them with a more generous offer than Olmert's. Further delays in closing the deal will also raise the level of bitterness among the families. But Monday night, at least, it seemed Hamas was having difficulty showing flexibility on the question of the number of prisoners to be expelled.

    The fate of Gilad Shalit has become a central topic of conversation in many Israeli homes over the past few days. The question, "what will happen to the boy?" is heard everywhere. The media is also enlisted almost fully in calling for the release of the soldier, marginalizing opponents to a swap. Support for a deal is legitimate, but even those who support it should ask themselves if those calling for release at any cost will be around to share the blame when some of those freed commit new attacks. Read more...


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    Monday, March 16, 2009

    Gilad Shalit Release

    Egyptian mediated talks relating to the release of Gilad Shalit have intensified in the last few days, leading Ehud Olmert to postpone by one day a special Cabinet meeting to address the issue. This coming Saturday, 21 March, will mark a thousand days since Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinian militants on the Israel-Gaza border. Last week, his family moved into a protest tent outside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's residence in Jerusalem, to increase pressure on the government to secure his release. They want Israel to conduct a prisoner exchange with Hamas. If concluded, via the Egyptian-brokered deal currently being formulated, this would bring the release of hundreds Palestinian prisoners, including many murderers and coordinators of terror. Throughout Israeli society, people are deeply sensitive to the issue of the captured soldier and express solidarity with the suffering family, but there is a controversy about the price of his freedom. This analysis sets out the context of the intensified media focus and addresses the tough questions facing Israel's political leadership.

    Since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on 25 June 2006, Israel has been actively trying to secure his release. In August 2006, Ehud Olmert appointed Ofer Dekel, former Deputy Head of the Shin Bet (Israel's equivalent of MI5) to coordinate efforts. With senior defence official Amos Gilead also heavily involved, negotiations have ebbed and flowed, but there are signs of current progress. Dekel has made three recent visits to Cairo for talks with Egyptian Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman. Notably, the serving Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, has also been assigned to the case.
    Last Thursday, Israel reportedly agreed to release "all 450 of the prisoners demanded by Hamas in exchange for Shalit."
    It seems that the dispute now concerns Israel's insistence that certain high-risk prisoners be deported rather than allowed to return to Gaza or the West Bank. Whilst it remains unclear whether a deal can be struck this time round, a special Israeli cabinet session that was scheduled to take place today, possibly the last of the present government, has now been postponed until Tuesday, presumably in the hope that it will be able to vote on a deal if one is reached. If they do not, it is not known how the process will move forward.
    Gilad Shalit banner

    Mounting pressure for a prisoner exchange
    A well-organised Free Shalit campaign in the closing stage of Ehud Olmert's premiership has intensified media focus on the issue. Gilad was a 19 year-old-conscript when he was captured. His youthful image is now instantly recognisable to all Israelis, as his picture can be seen on T-shirts, car bumper stickers and posters across the country. A song written in his honour, ‘Return Home', is frequently heard on national radio stations. His time in captivity is updated daily in newspapers and on popular websites, often with the message: ‘Gilad is still alive'. A story about peace that he wrote at school when he was 11 has been turned into a popular illustrated children's book. In the latest public campaign, a single word has been taken from a handwritten letter released to his family and blown up on billboard posters. The word is ‘hatzilu', meaning ‘save me'.


    His father Noam and his mother Aviva are now well known public figures in Israel. Noam Shalit appears in the media on an almost daily basis. Since he and his family moved to the protest tent last week, they have met with President Shimon Peres, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and other leading politicians, such as Shaul Mofaz and Dalia Itzik from Kadima and Shas's Eli Yishai. They have been joined by hundreds of ordinary people from all walks of life wishing to show their support. Images of members of Israel's ultra-orthodox and secular communities together in the Jerusalem tent are an expression of the deep yearning for Gilad Shalit's safe return felt throughout Israeli society.

    Other high profile individuals also play an instrumental role. They include Karnit Goldwasser, the widow of one of two soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in 2006 (their bodies were returned in a prisoner swap last summer), and the family of missing airman Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Though the family tends not to speak openly about these issues, Arad's wife, Tammy, last week said that she supported freeing "Palestinian murderers" for Shalit's release.
    Some (though by no means all) of those left bereaved by terror attacks also show their solidarity with the Shalit cause. Internationally, due to the fact that Shalit also holds French citizenship, Nicolas Sarkozy has also played a diplomatic role, and Shalit was recently named as an ‘Honorary Citizen of Paris'.


    It is the sense that the clock is ticking in the face of political developments in Israel that concern the Shalit family and campaign activists. They fear that the present transition of power could lead to Shalit being ‘lost forever'. This trepidation is fuelled by Israel's failure, to this day, to discover the fate of Ron Arad who, like Shalit, was known to have been held alive for several years after his capture, before the trail of efforts to bring his release ran cold. Olmert's associates say he is keen to "clear his desk" before he leaves office by resolving the Shalit case.
    Ironically, though, if he brings forward an agreement now, the question will be asked as to why the terms of such a deal were unacceptable a year ago or longer. Shalit campaigners, meanwhile, are trying to remain focused on the present and to pressure Olmert to put an end to the matter which arose on his watch.
    They fear that Israeli Prime-Minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu will not want to be seen making a major concession to Hamas upon taking office. Hamas would certainly declare the deal as a major victory over Israel. That Hamas has reportedly demanded freedom for Marwan Barghouti, a prominent political figure and potential rival to Hamas, who was convicted on five counts of murder in 2004, shows how it is trying to use this issue to improve its support across Palestinian society.
    It seems that Olmert's associates are pushing the ‘tough Netanyahu' image in order to try to pressure Hamas into seeing current talks as a ‘last chance' to reunite Palestinian prisoners with their families; Noam Shalit has similarly appealed to Hamas along these lines. It is also in Netanyahu's interests to see the issue resolved before his government is formed. He would certainly prefer not to be dragged into an Egyptian mediated negotiation over this issue, which would diminish his uncompromising image vis-à-vis Hamas. But it would be almost impossible for him to avoid undertaking efforts to bring about the return of a kidnapped soldier.


    The Price of Freedom
    There is a consensus in the country, and within the major political parties, about the responsibility of the state to the soldiers risking their lives for it. Yet at the same time, Israel knows how conscious its enemies are of its vulnerability, due to the high value it places on bringing its soldiers home. This paradox is at the root of the controversy over the price to be paid for securing the release of missing servicemen.

    Those in Israel who advocate paying a heavy price for Gilad Shalit's return cite a history of disproportionate prisoner exchanges going as far back as the 1956 Sinai Campaign. More recently, in January 2004 a reserve Israeli Colonel kidnapped in Dubai and the remains of three soldiers ambushed by Hezbollah in 2000, were returned to Israel in exchange for 429 prisoners, and the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters. In July 2008 the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Oded Regev were sent back to Israel in return for the freeing Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, four other Hezbollah fighters and the bodies of 199 more. Many Israelis who support such exchanges see them as the unfortunate but inescapable consequence of many years of conflict. It is argued that the release of prisoners does not significantly alter Israel's military superiority over Hamas and its other enemies.

    The converse view is encapsulated by the words written on a banner at a small, separate demonstration set up for a brief period last week, near to where the Free Shalit campaigners are encamped. It read: "Yes to freeing Shalit, no to freeing terrorists." This argument challenges the rationality of exchanging a single soldier for hundreds of prisoners, including those with ‘blood on their hands'. The risk, as the intelligence community points out, is not only that releasing terrorists threatens the loss of further civilian lives, but that by negotiating such deals, it rewards the captors, and creates an incentive for future hostage taking.

    But since neither military operations nor economic sanctions are likely to lead Hamas to surrender the soldier, adopting a stance which rejects the return of prisoners would effectively kill any chance of a deal. Ultimately though, politicians in a democracy have wider responsibilities. They cannot unthinkingly put the interests of a uniformed soldier, or even an entire military brigade, before the protection of the civilian population. As such, in the face of uncertainty, the degree of risk to Israeli security as a whole falls to their judgment.

    In security terms, Ofer Dekel and Yuval Diskin are tasked with determining not only the quantity and identity of the Palestinians that would be released in return for Shalit, but their destination upon being freed. Allowing militants to return to the West Bank could destabilise the relative calm that Israel, the PA and the international community have achieved there, in contrast to the Gaza Strip. Lethal bombings and shootings of Israeli civilians are more easily perpetrated from the West Bank than Gaza, and Israel wants to avoid a scenario where a major prisoner release in exchange for Shalit leaves more bereaved families in its wake. As such, the acceptable conditions for a deal, from Israel's point of view, may rest with whether agreement can be reached over the deportation of prisoners.

    Conclusion
    The ongoing captivity of Gilad Shalit haunts Israeli society. For a country where most families have members serving as conscripts or reserves in the army, the return of kidnapped soldiers touches most individuals on a very personal level. When the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Oded Regev were returned from Lebanon last year, the grief that they were not returned alive was palpable. But so was the sense of relief that the doubt about their wellbeing had been taken away and that the episode had been concluded. Nevertheless, in deliberating Gilad Shalit's return, Israeli decision makers are forced to calculate the value of human life in the starkest terms by making a judgement about the risk to Israel's security.

    The public pressure on the government to resolve the issue also has broader implications. The problems resulting from Hamas's rule in Gaza would not disappear with the resolution of the Shalit affair. But for as long as Hamas continues to hold the abducted soldier, the horizon will be that much bleaker, because Israel will never give up its efforts to retrieve him. The people would not allow it..

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    Thursday, March 5, 2009

    Dilemmas on Iran

    If Israel is going to attack Iran in the next two years, it must take the following possible developments into account: The attack will fail. The attack will succeed in part and delay the Iranian nuclear program only somewhat. The attack will succeed but lead to a harsh counterstrike. The attack will ignite an unending Iranian-Israeli war. The attack will cause Israel's allies to break off their alliance with it. The attack will lead to worldwide condemnation of Israel that will isolate it and turn it into an international pariah.

    If Israel does not attack Iran over the next two years, it must take into account other possible developments: A nuclear Iran could become a regional power that will tip the scales in the struggle between extremists and moderates in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran that controls the energy routes could gain enough power to squeeze Europe, Russia, China and even the United States. A nuclear Iran could erode Israeli deterrence and initiate serious and ongoing confrontations in the south and north. A nuclear Iran and the terror groups it supports will cast a pall of fear over many Israelis.

    In about two months, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu will meet U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. That meeting will be fateful. It alone can extricate Israel from the trap of a bomb or a bombing. However, the meeting will be difficult. Netanyahu will have to persuade a dovish president to force a hawkish position on a defense establishment that does not want it.

    An Israeli conservative will try to convince an American Democratic president to act in the Iranian crisis the way John F. Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis. If Netanyahu succeeds, the West will be able to overcome the worst danger it has faced since the Cold War. If he fails, Israel will face the most difficult dilemma in its history.

    Many mock Netanyahu because he compares the Iranian threat to the threat of 1948. The mockers are wrong. True, Iran will be in no hurry for a nuclear strike against Israel. A nuclear Iran will not necessarily generate apocalypse now. However, if Iran becomes as strong as France, it will create new strategic circumstances in which Israel will find it hard to survive for long. But if Israel acts hastily, it could expose itself to unprecedented risks. That is why the challenge in the run-up to 2010 - the year the Israeli intelligence community believes Iran will have enough fissionable material to make a bomb - is so great. Resolution 2010 is an existential one.


    By Ari Shavit - From Ha'aretz. Read more...


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